Title-holders Zambia head a list of 10 past winners in a strong field at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations finals, but it is the Ivory Coast who start as strong favorites.
It will be the fifth successive tournament that striker Didier Drogba and his teammates are the team to beat, but they could find the “favorites” tag substituted for that of “chokers” if they are again unable to deliver.
The spotlight will be focused on the 34-year-old Drogba, who is Africa’s most high-profile player, but has never tasted Cup of Nations success.
The Ivorians have enjoyed fluctuating fortunes in the four previous editions, but there is a growing belief that Drogba, in the autumn of an international career that has delivered 56 goals in 90 matches, can drive the side to the title.
Drogba is joined in the Ivory Coast squad by African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony, top scorer in the Dutch league this season and seen as Drogba’s successor.
“There has been a mental block left by the past failures, but the pressure does not scare us,” coach Sabri Lamouchi said.
West African rivals Ghana and Mali represent a potent threat, along with the pairing of Morocco and Algeria, second-ranked in Africa behind the Ivorians.
Nigeria return after missing the last edition, while hosts South Africa will be hoping to emerge from a difficult time to ride a wave of home support.
Ghana have not won in more than 30 years, but are still expected to launch a strong challenge.
Mali are an unknown quantity, but have picked a team full of regulars from clubs in Europe’s major leagues.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Tunisia are past Nations Cup winners, but would consider advancing to the knockout stages a success this time.
This year’s finals come just 12 months after the last tournament, because of a change in the timing of the event from every even to every odd year.
South Africa kick off the tournament tomorrow at Soccer City in Johannesburg against the Cape Verde Islands, with the 93,000-seater stadium sold out.